The Vizhinjam Saga: Is the Seaport in Tough Waters?

Remember when a grand ceremony was organized at the Vizhinjam International Seaport, located in Thiruvananthapuram to mark the arrival of the Chinese heavy cargo carrier Zhen Hua 15? The maiden vessel call at Adani’s latest mega port was celebrated in the presence of Mr. Sarbananda Sonowal (Union Minister for Ports, Shipping, Waterways, and Ayush), Mr. Pinarayi Vijayan (Chief Minister of Kerala), and Mr. Ahammad Devarkovil (Minister for Ports, Kerala).

The Zhen Hua 15 was, however, not a ‘call’ call. The cargo ship was, in fact, carrying enormous cranes to handle incoming containers for the under-construction port. The government of Kerela was also swift to take for India’s first deep-sea container transshipment terminal which will be ‘transforming’ the country’s role in international maritime trade.

All the fanfare around the Vizhinjam Port created massive anticipation around cargo operations starting soon at the port. However, a forthcoming study titled ‘Impact of Vizhinjam International Seaport on Beaches, Coastal Sea, Biodiversity, and Livelihoods’ by Janakeeya Padana Samithi challenges the government’s assertions on port completion. Led by Dr. K.V. Thomas, the team of scientists and experts delves into the intricacies of the Vizhinjam issue, offering comprehensive analyses and long-term solutions in the study.

Contributors to the study also that the high-profile inauguration of the port in October, spending Rs 66 lakh, is “akin to opening a shopping mall while its shelves are being built”. The study will be unveiled shortly on 21 November by historian Ramachandra Guha in Thiruvananthapuram to mark the occasion of World Fisheries Day.

Contrary to government projections of commercial operations starting in May 2024, the study reveals that Vizhinjam won’t be fully operational until at least 2025 citing the unavailability of certain facilities which are crucial to start port operations. Notably, the completion of the breakwater to enable berthing doesn’t signify readiness for commercial activities.

A submission made to the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in August this year by the Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited states that the breakwater construction has reached 62% in the last 8 years and completion of Phase-1 of the mega project is 5 years behind schedule. The 3.2 km breakwater is not even 70% complete and dredging and reclamation is also less than 70% complete. 

Additionally, the study underscores crucial prerequisites for port operations, including berths, navigational aids, cargo handling equipment, and environmental compliance. The existing environment clearance (EC) will expire on January 3, 2024. Originally, the validity was for five years, which was till December 29, 2020. Considering COVID and other natural disaster, it was extended till January 3, 2024.

Did the cream just turn sour?

The 800-metre-long container berth is nearly 83% complete but the container yard is not even 30% complete. Phase II has just two components: an additional 400 meters of container terminal and an additional 200 meters of breakwater.

Phase III has four components: an additional 800 meters of container terminal, an additional 200 meters of cruise-cum-multipurpose terminal (Phase I will have 300 meters), a 250-meter liquid terminal for storing petroleum products, and an additional 700 meters of breakwater.

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